Thursday, April 10, 2008

Democratic Education vs Standardized Curricula

Pragmatically I get the purpose of curriculum, standards, et cetera. I'm not even sure I want to live in a standards-free world. I like having an idea of what is expected of me and my students during the year ahead of time. I like the idea of deciding that certain knowledge and skills are important. I also like not making up my curriculum from scratch! There are things that I teach that I wouldn't have thought of and have made me learn more about aspects of US history that I previously didn't care about.

I have this problem, though. An idealistically mandated curriculum is a form of authoritarianism. I object to authoritarianism in all aspects of life. I live in what is supposed to be a great republic!

People scratch their heads over low voter turnout in the United States, especially among the young adult crowd. I think a large part of the problem is that people don't have practice with democratic institutions outside of voting. It's not just schools, but schools are part of the problem. Schools don't teach democracy because they're undemocratic.

Consider for a moment the irony of memorizing the democratic process because you are forced to by someone you didn't elect, have no influence over, and who runs their classroom like a totalitarian dictatorship.

Mandated curriculum makes truly democratic education nearly impossible. When teachers are teaching based on a decision they had very little input into, then they're more likely to teach as authoritarian authorities. Sages on the stage, not guides on the side, as my education professors would say. Learning is messy, it leads you into tangents and no-exit alleys and all over the place if you let it. You can't, though, if you see teaching as following a set-list slavishly.

"Why do we have to learn this?" is a pretty depressing question to deal with if you're teaching something you don't think is important. After all, telling your students "because a faceless bureaucracy said I had to teach it to you" doesn't really do much for their motivation either. The answer should be something like "because it's interesting and useful" or, even better, "because you asked to!"

I don't know how you reconcile mandated curricula with democratic teaching. How do teachers provide students choice (proven to be one of the best motivators out there) when they are given none?

Next time: Why I think this is so important. Also, a possible middle way through this dichotomy.


Clay Burell said...

I've been wrestling with similar questions about alternatives to the SAT and GPA's for college admissions selections. It's easy enough to observe these devils we know, but harder to envision a less devilish alternative. That doesn't mean it's impossible. And I think it should be tried.

I read somewhere about a school in which students voted on whether teachers returned for the following year. Done with enough inculcation of the gravity of this privilege, I think it's right on. Curriculum as usual, as you say, doesn't work too much of the time; but the wrong teachers without prescribed (dictated) curriculum would abuse it and waste students' time.

So if students could really vote based on how much learning-of-value they get from a teacher, I think that's pregnant with possibility.

Enjoyed the post.

Charlie A. Roy said...

We've started doing an annual survey with our senior students. It is very telling, eye opening, and helpful in evaluating what personnel changes need to be made. Of course some comments need to be deeply discounted.

Adso of Melk said...

I think there are two issues here:

1. What shall we teach?
2. How shall we teach it?

I have no objection to someone telling me what we shall teach if that "what" is focused on specific concepts and skills. For instance, if you said, "Adso, I want you to teach your freshmen the following skills: how to write an eleven-sentence paragraph, how to construct narrative and persuasive short essays, how to identify XYZ forms of poetry and XYZ literary terms," that would be fine.

Telling me HOW to do it would be something I would fight tooth and nail.

Harold Shaw said...

I like the other commenter on here have the same conundrum. But and this is a big but. Where I work I receive high school students that have been to other schools (throughout the state and beyond) that we have to teach middle school standards to. So are these standards actually being taught or are teachers doing the best they can, with what they have - dependent upon the student's own ability and attitudes towards learning.

I like the idea from Charlie about the exit surveys but should these survey results be surprising if we are have had ongoing conversations with our students? I know that many schools are so big getting to know very many of the students is close to impossible, but we still have to try.

Standards need to be paired down to what students need to know to be successful after school, not to only get ready for college, because many could care less about college and those are the ones we are loosing.

Penelope said...

Interesting thoughts from everyone.

The exit surveys/end-of-year voting is a strong idea. I liked the format my college used for course assessments, and could see it being adapted for high school level. Feedback could be useful for both administration and students. Harold--you're right that we'd hope that the survey results wouldn't be too surprising. However, I think it's impractical to hope that teachers or administrators (or even students) would get to know all of their students well, unless you have a school of less than 250. Surveys are also a good idea because people may be more willing to express themselves in that format than some of the other conversations that happen.

Adso-- Although I don't want to be told how to teach, I don't mind suggestions. I also don't like being told what to teach, to some extent. This is because I don't think that social studies education focuses on the right what.

Harold has a point about paring down standards, but most standards need rethinking. Well, I know social studies ones do, and I assume most other disciplines do. We teach too much based on unquestioned ideas of what is important, what's the base knowledge in the discipline. It's worth seriously reexamining the assumptions inherent in standards.